Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The cake is a lie

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The game “Portal” has been around since 2007. So long that you’ve probably seen the memes, even if you’ve never played the game – a red circle with a Christmas tree halfway through it, a blue circle with the other half of the Christmas tree.

It was based on a 2005 puzzle platform game, “Narbacular Drop,” designed by Nuclear Monkey Software, a group of students from DigiPen Institute of Techology. Valve saw their work and immediately hired the group.

It’s a great game that uses a simple device -the portal maker – to solve problems. At first, you’re simply getting around a corner with a carefully placed portal, or putting a portal where you want an object to drop. Eventually you’ll be asked to solve more complex problems, like increasing the velocity of your fall by adding a portal to your drop, so that when you finally hit the springboard you’re launched into the next area. That’s all I’ll say about game play, because if you’ve never played it, you should.

I’m not embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know about “Portal” until its sequel came out. I played the sequel first because I apparently don’t care about continuity. Then I played through the original game, which has been updated with higher resolution textures.

One of the utterly charming things about the original “Portal” game is the apparently sociopathic artificial intelligence that’s running the game. You’re trapped in a testing arena with a computer that’s constantly testing your limits and isn’t too concerned about your safety. Every once in a while, GLaDOS (the artificial intelligence) will taunt you with your incompetence, your lack of suitability for this task, even promise you cake, only to reward you with yet more testing.  

Eventually you will complete the testing, defeat GLaDOS, and escape from the lab, only to be dragged back to the lab in a brief cutscene at the end of the game and put into suspended animation.

Portal 2

“Portal 2” was released in 2011. This sequel keeps the same ingenious puzzle construction as the first game, but combines it with better graphics and smoother gameplay. And no mention of cake. Game designer Erik Wolpaw was wanting something new and avoided referring to cake in Portal 2 (except for one subtle reference.) "If you thought you were sick of the memes, I was sick of it way ahead of you."

The look and feel of “Portal 2” was inspired by photo galleries of abandoned architecture, industrial buildings that have fallen into disuse, and old buildings from the Soviet Space program.

In “Portal 2,” you’re awakened from a long slumber by Wheatley, just in time for the facility to be demolished. Wheatley, voiced by Stephen Merchant, is a personality core, originally used to control GLaDOS. Wheatley guides you through the old testing chambers while trying to help you escape, and accidentally revives GLaDOS,

“Portal 2” uses the portal gun that we all know and love from the first game. As you progress, you’ll encounter more experimental materials from the Aperture Science facility, like gels that allow you to bounce higher or go faster, lasers (Thermal Discouragement Beams) that can be used to activate switches, tractor beams (Excursion Funnels) and Hard Light Bridges. These can be combined with the portals to solve the increasingly more difficult puzzles.

Through short audio recordings made by Cave Johnson (voiced by the actor J.K. Simmons) we learn that Aperture Science Laboratory has fallen on hard times. Johnson’s experiments on moon dust have made him fatally ill, and his final act is to put the brain of his assistant, Caroline, into a computer, creating GLaDOS.

“Portal 2” isn’t more difficult than “Portal 1.” If there’s a difference, the play time is a little longer - it’s more cinematic. It looks better, includes some really impressive renderings, and there’s more ‘story.’ Stephen Merchant makes the character of Wheatley really unlikeable. Some of his performances were improv, which keeps it spontaneous and funny. J.K. Simmons as the voice of Cave Johnson was perfectly cast, and his performance made it a better game.

It’s also playable as a 2-player cooperative mode, with participation required from both players to solve the puzzles.

I won’t spoil the ending of the game for you, but it’s challenging, the ending is satisfying, and Wheatley gets what’s coming to him. “Portal 2” has won several awards, including Ultimate Game of the Year at the 2011 Golden Joystick Awards, and six BAFTA video game award categories, including Best Game, Best Story, and Best Design.

“Portal” and its sequel, “Portal 2” were built using the Half-Life engine. Originally this was done because of a lack of art resources; eventually Valve tied in Portal and Portal 2 to the Half-Life game universe. “Portal” happens between “Half Life” and “Half Life 2”. Portal characters have appeared in other games, including “Lego Dimensions,” “Dota 2,” “Cyberpunk 2077,” “Rocket League,” “Minecraft,” and more.

Available on SteamOS for PC and Macintosh.